The House ethics committee has abandoned efforts to subpoena the notes of Washington Times reporter Thomas D. Brandt, who two weeks ago reported secret results of a committee investigation into alleged violations of House financial-disclosure rules by Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro (D-N.Y.).
John M. Bray, a lawyer for The Times, said committee attorneys informed the newspaper yesterday that Brandt is no longer required to appear before the committee Friday or to furnish his notes.
Bray said committee attorneys told The Times that the subpoena had been "adjourned subject to further notice" -- legal language meaning postponed indefinitely -- and that, with only a few days left until the 98th Congress ends, the subpoena is effectively dead.
Matters not finished when the 98th Congress officially expires Jan. 3 cannot be carried over to the new Congress.
Brandt, who had said he would testify before the committee but would not provide his notes or reveal confidential sources, yesterday called the committee decision "wise . . . since my appearance would've been very unproductive for them. It avoids unnecessary First Amendment confrontation."
In addition, he said, "the outcome has reinforced the principle that there are constitutional safegards protecting reporters from revealing their sources."
Brandt was subpoenaed Dec. 6 to appear before the committee Friday with all notes and documents related to his article on Ferraro. The committee could have cited Brandt for contempt of Congress had he not complied with the subpoena.
Major news organizations strongly supported Brandt and sharply attacked the committee, terming its subpoena an assault on the First Amendment. The National Press Club yesterday urged the committee to drop what it called the "outrageous and illegal" subpoena.
According to House sources, committee members were reluctant to return to Capitol Hill a few days before Christmas and equally reluctant to have a major confrontation with the news media, especially with the congressional term almost finished.
"To drag members in from around the country when you know what's going to happen -- he's not going to reveal his sources -- and you know we're the committee going to die on Jan. 3, seems sort of silly," one panel member said yesterday.
Committee Chairman Louis Stokes (D-Ohio) and other committee officials refused to comment yesterday on the subpoena.
The panel, officially known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, is required by House rules to be one of the most secretive on Capitol Hill. It handles lawmakers' ethical questions and evaluates allegations of ethical violations against them.
According to sources, the ethics panel voted, 12 to 0, to investigate for leaks after Brandt's story because it "was embarrassed" by premature disclosure of the Ferraro report. "There was a fair amount of emotion involved" when the committee voted to set up the leak probe, one source said.
The report, which found that Ferraro had committed technical violations of House ethics rules that did not warrant disciplinary action, was hurriedly released by the committee the day after Brandt's article appeared.
But several members, faced with the media outcry over the subpoena, cooled to the idea and decided the leak inquiry could be handled without Brandt.
Sources confirmed yesterday that committee staffers and others who work in the offices of committee members have been asked to sign statements swearing that they did not leak the report on Ferraro to Brandt.